READY, AIM, FIRE: TATUM BURNS, COACHES TAKE HITS, MORANT PACKS MORE HEAT
Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be NBA coaches, whose achievements are forgotten quickly — in some cases, unfairly — in a league of entitled stars who quit in games and keep flashing handguns
It was about when Jayson Tatum reduced Joel Embiid to a museum mummy — shaking him at the three-point stripe, drilling another killer, skipping the other way with a primal shout into NBA lore (“OH … MY … GOD!”) — that James Harden quit playing Sunday. There aren’t enough tributes for Tatum, who scored a record 51 points in a Game 7 and isn’t wrong when he says, “Humbly, I’m one of the best basketball players in the world.”
Nor was he wrong when he paused later and shouted to a Boston fan base that has watched legends for decades, “THIS IS MY S—!”
Just the same, there is no cure for what ails Harden, the ever-exasperating Playoff Beard, not to be confused with Playoff Jimmy Butler. That includes a doctor on the sideline, Doc Rivers, who won a championship 15 years earlier on the same parquet floor. During ABC’s telecast of this Mother’s Day massacre, analyst Mark Jackson called Rivers “a future Hall of Fame coach.” That still might be so, but since leaving the Celtics, he has fallen shy of the Finals with all-time players in Los Angeles and two more in Philadelphia. His failures, the latest at age 61, qualify him for the fate awaiting coaches who might thrive at one point in their careers but fizzle later.
The ziggy, they call it.
No man is immune these days beyond Gregg Popovich, who had to win five titles to avoid it, and Steve Kerr, who had to win four times, and Erik Spoelstra, who won twice and somehow is alive this season. The question: Does an owner who shells out $4 billion for a franchise, as Mat Ishbia did in Phoenix before he fired Monty Williams, have the right to react — or overreact — as he wants? Or should we be scolding mammas, on their day, for letting their babies grow up to be NBA coaches?
“No one is safe in our business, and I get that,” Rivers said after the 76ers swallowed a 112-88 stink sandwich in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Only these days, owners don’t allow even a smidgen of imperial privilege based on past achievements. Coaching in this league, I suggest, has become the most thankless job in sports, especially when sabotaged by an entitled quitter such as Harden, who added another pathetic washout to an indefensible postseason resume. Or, in a scene that repeated itself repulsively Saturday, we had the latest Instagram Live session featuring Ja Morant and a dangerous weapon known as a handgun. About two months after serving an eight-game suspension for brandishing a gun in a Denver strip club, Morant was packing more heat with one of his bad-news friends — the creeps he was supposed to ditch, as warned in a come-to-papa talk with commissioner Adam Silver. Now that the Memphis Grizzlies have suspended him from all team activities, Morant assuredly will be slapped with a lengthy league suspension that costs him tens of millions next season. No longer is a sports nation outraged. If the idiot wants to blow up his career in all the wrong places, let him self-destruct to the beat of his rap music.
Yet, Morant won’t lose his job, though he quickly has defied a promise to be “better with my decision-making … more responsible, more smarter.” The stars always keep their gigs in this age of NBA player empowerment. The coaches are the fall guys, the scapegoats, sometimes deservedly and sometimes not at all. Lately, the preponderance of pink slips seems disproportionate to any sort of fairness doctrine.
Do we have the whirlwind straight now, as our sensibilities are attacked by vertigo spasms? Nick Nurse coached the Toronto Raptors to a championship in 2019. He rejected a job feeler from the Los Angeles Lakers, who hired Frank Vogel and watched him win the Disney Bubble title in 2020. Two seasons later, after Mike Budenholzer coached the Milwaukee Bucks to a title in 2021, Vogel was dismissed and eventually replaced by Budenholzer’s assistant, Darvin Ham, who has led the Lakers to the Western Conference finals in the weeks since Budenholzer and Nurse were fired.
Meaning: In a league smothered by the agita of impetuous owners who think every season should result in a trophy ceremony, the worst way for a coach to command job security is to win a championship. He’s better off setting a lower bar of expectations so too much isn’t demanded of him. Ted Lasso might have a longer survival arc as a casual TV yokel than Michael Malone or Joe Mazzulla, who could take the Denver Nuggets and Celtics to the Finals next month and still be out of work next spring.
Do you know how absurdly unrealistic, unjust and psychotic this is? Of the four championship coaches in the last four years, only Kerr has a job today, and for all we know, that could change by sunset, given the demise of a Golden State dynasty that won merely half the available Larry O’Brien trophies in an eight-season span. Nine coaches have been to the NBA Finals since 2015; seven have been fired, including Williams. Like the other ziggy victims, he’s known as a good coach and a fine man who simply was in the way of a mad wreckingball swung by a want-it-all, want-it-now owner.
“We all know what we get into when we get into this business,” said Kerr, who should maintain his gig but might have more longevity as the U.S. Olympic men’s coach. “It just happens quickly. I mean, expectations every year for every team are so high, and only one team can win. It’s sad news for the coaching profession.”
“That’s just the way it is,” said Rivers, unable to devise a defense to slow down Tatum in Games 6 and 7. “And you know what’s funny? We still sign on to do it. And I love what I do, and we’re going to keep signing on. Because it’s awesome.”
Until the owner decides awesome is awful, which describes the demise of a Sixers team that flopped again with MVP Embiid and Harden, both still ringless. Seems wrong that a coach is automatically blamed when players tune him out, which was Nurse’s issue in Toronto, where a tense relationship with assistant Earl Watson didn’t help. Didn’t Kawhi Leonard’s departure send the Raptors into a one-and-done reality beyond Nurse’s control? The Lakers suffered injuries and stopped playing for Vogel after their pandemic title, but was it his fault that LeBron James and general manager Rob Pelinka forced a problematic Russell Westbrook onto him and didn’t clean up an ill-formed roster until this past February? Budenholzer is harder to defend and never will live down his failure to call a timeout against Spoelstra, who has the Miami Heat where the Bucks should be, in the East finals against Boston. Still, Giannis Antetokounmpo had seven turnovers, 13 missed free throws and 13 missed shots from the field in the elimination loss, then delivered his lame “there’s no failure in sports” speech. Why did Giannis avoid even a sprinkling of criticism while his coach was ash-canned?
Because, the superstars are protected by owners who treat coaches like collateral damage. “You hear all the stuff about Bud,” Rivers said. “Clearly, there are so many people smarter than Bud, going by what everybody says. I know that’s not true. But it doesn’t matter.” The difference between Rivers and the fired threesome is that they’ve won recent titles. His one and only came in 2008. Sixers owner Josh Harris, whose prominence has mushroomed after purchasing the NFL’s Washington Commanders from disgraced Dan Snyder, couldn’t be blamed for losing patience and ordering the execution of Rivers — though it was general manager Daryl Morey, in his dumbest idea since going public with an anti-China tweet, who traded for Harden. Shouldn’t Morey go, too? Harris, who also owns the NHL’s New Jersey Devils, doesn’t seem as batty as some of his brethren. Rivers expects to be back. “Yeah. I think I have two years left,” he said.
Embiid wants him to return. “Coach has been fantastic,” he said, “and he’s done a great job in my opinion.” Harden wasn’t as effusive, but he has Morey’s ear. Isn’t it time for Harris to step in and offer the coaching gig to Jay Wright, who has been good on TV since leaving Villanova but belongs on the sideline in a city that adores him?
Forget all those sweet tales about Ishbia rising from the walk-on ranks at Michigan State to buy the Suns at 42. He’s a millennial snake, severing Williams a year after he was named Coach of the Year and two years after he directed the Suns to a 2-0 Finals lead before losing to the Bucks and Budenholzer, who conceivably could replace him in the Valley of the Scorching Sun. Unless Nurse is that man. Or, Ishbia coaches Devin Booker and Kevin Durant himself. Crazy?
This is the NBA — No Brakes Allowed — a league that already has shifted to a culture of superstar empowerment as the domain of short-memory owners who target coaches for every measure of blame. As he watched the playoffs from his courtside seat, almost leaning into the action, Ishbia acted like a competitive cyclone who wanted to direct the team he recently bought. During the series that led to Williams’ ouster, a West semifinals loss to Denver, the owner wouldn’t return the ball to Nikola Jokic and could have sparked a courtside melee. Taking turns sitting beside him were his close confidante, Isiah Thomas, and his former college coach and teammate, Tom Izzo and Mateen Cleaves. Ishbia almost became a college assistant before taking over his father’s mortgage firm. No doubt he thinks he could do a better job than Williams, which is why he decided on a firing as the Suns were blown out in their elimination game. Never mind that Durant and Williams have had a long history. Never mind that Booker must adapt to his sixth head coach in nine years. Bye, Monty. Hello, Tom Izzo?
If Ishbia had no patience sitting on the bench in East Lansing, he won’t have much after declaring in February, “We’re going to try to win championships. We’re going to try everything we can to win.” That reflects a lesson in his book, “Running the Corporate Offense: Lessons in Effective Leadership from the Bench to the Boardroom.” He writes, “Make a decision and go for it. Make necessary changes along the way.”
Will dumping Williams work when Durant can’t stay healthy and the bench is depleted? Probably not. So far, Ham-for-Vogel has worked in L.A. And the Mazzulla experiment has worked so far in Boston, where the Celtics have overcome the stunning preseason firing of the coach who took them to last year’s Finals — Ime Udoka was released after a workplace affair. But as recently as last week, when the Sixers led the series 3-2, fans wanted Mazzulla’s hide. So did guard Marcus Smart, who still wasn’t sure of the first-year coach when he said he “rightfully’’ faces heat in a demanding sports town.
“Rightfully so in the fact that just like us when we go out there and we don't play a good game, or we don't do things we know we're capable of and we should be doing, we get held accountable,” Smart said. “Joe's not on the court, so he gets held accountable differently than we do. And that's with certain things that he might do or might not do.”
A deft adjustment — Robert Williams III was back in the starting lineup for the last two victories — has Mazzulla back in everyone’s good graces. “At the end of the day it's his decision," Smart said. "If it works, we don't say nothing. If it doesn't, then obviously you have to look at it. That's the fun of taking the criticism and moving on, being coachable, being able to learn. The great players, the great coaches, they're able to learn. Even if they make a mistake, they don't let it deter him. They keep going and they learn from it.”
Of course, if the Celtics fall behind in the East finals when they are heavy favorites to win, the new guy will be abused again. And fans will be calling for Udoka. Wait, he was hired by Houston, where he soon could be joined by French prodigy Victor Wembanyama if the draft lottery cooperates Tuesday. Someone else might be joining the Rockets, too, if he opts out of a $35.6 million player option and becomes a free agent.
James Harden, who shot 12-for-55 in the four losses, 3-for-11 on Sunday.
The parachute always lands, even when filled with bricks.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.